La Festa Dei Ceri (Race of the Candles)

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May 24, 2020

The beautiful Umbrian fortress town of Gubbio, which seems caught in a pre-Renaissance time warp, normally celebrates La Festa dei Ceri in mid-May – we look forward to next year! It’s a dizzying fusion of gaiety and religious devotion, and an unusual race with a preordained outcome.

The ceri or “candlesticks” are three gigantic wooden structures over twenty feet tall and weigh about 900 pounds, built out of octagonal sections so that they look almost like chess pieces. Each is crowned with carvings of saints Ubaldo, Giorgio, and Antonio who, respectively, protect masons, merchants, and farmers. Costumed throngs of locals — garbed in the dedicated color for each of the saints (yellow for Ubaldo, blue for Giorgio, and black for Antonio) — party in the narrow streets and piazzas in anticipation of the ritual afternoon race of the saints.

With a roar from the multitude, the ceri are hoisted up by teams of local young men who haul the giant pedestals along the Corsa dei Ceri at running speed to the top of Mount Ingino. Though always exciting, the ritual race is not one you want to bet on: St. Ubaldo, the town’s patron, wins every time. This heralds a year of good fortune for the town.

The festival inspires such passion among people of the region and their descendants that homesick Italian soldiers enacted it within the bloody landscape of World War II. And in the United States, Jessup, Pennsylvania, just outside of Scranton, performs a nearly identical “Race of the Saints” to celebrate St. Ubaldo’s Day on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend (also postponed until 2021).

Photos courtesy of Frank Yantorno, artist, photographer and Ciclismo Classico guide who lives outside of Bolzano.

The Power & Glory of Venice

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Apr 25, 2020

Venice is a city of surprises, filled with contrasts and apparent contradictions that, somehow, fluidly coexist. It is a city of water and of stone, the most pliant and most solid of natural substances. For much of its history Venice has been guided by BOTH church & state and by both honor & profit. And, like the Roman god Janus, Venice has always faced in two directions at the same time: to the West and to the East.

But most improbable of all is Venice’s amazing historic arc . . . over a millennium Venice went from a marshy hideaway for refugees to one of the greatest economic and political powers in the world.

Whenever I visit La Serenissima and revel in the architectural confection of St. Mark’s Basilica and the Gothic grandeur of the Doge’s Palace I am reminded of the twin pillars upon which Venice built its improbable success: an unwavering faith in a higher being and a more earth-bound faith in the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its fellow Venetians to navigate and triumph in a challenging world.

Venice and all of Italy will bounce back and once again astonish and delight us all.

Andra! Tutto Bene!!

A Neapolitan Christmas Card

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Dec 24, 2019

The tradition of nativity scenes began with Saint Francis of Assisi who staged the first nativity in 1223 with people and live ox and lamb. Overtime this evolved to life-sized wooden figures placed in front of churches and then, into scenes made of small expressive terracotta figurines.

During the 1700s, crèche figures were an obsession in Naples. Weal­thy families competed to create the most im­pressive ones. When Don Carlos of Bourbon (the future Charles III of Spain) ruled Naples and Sicily from 1734-1769, he reputedly owned a crèche with nearly 6,000 figures. Neapolitan crèches were often given as presents to royalty all over Europe so such figurines can appear on the antique market even today.

The 18th century crèche of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the finest in the US and features over 200 figurines made by the Neapolitan artisan Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils. All the figurines have finely painted terracotta heads; legs, arms, and wings carved from wood; and bodies of hemp and wire. No two are alike. The graceful angels decorating the tree all have different faces and clothing and carry different objects. The Nativity scene surrounding the majestic twenty-foot blue spruce features the three main elements characteristic of 18th-century Naples: adoring shepherds and their flocks, the Three Kings in procession, and colorful peasants and townspeople engaged in quotidian tasks. In the background are dozens of animals and architectural pieces including quaint houses, market stalls, Roman ruins, and even a typical Italian fountain.

The Neapolitan Crèche and Baroque Angel Tree located in the Met’s Medieval Courtyard are on display through the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) marking the arrival of the Three Wise Man bringing their finest gifts for the new born King.